Pakistani Nationals on the Move to Europe: New Pressures, Risks, Opportunities

This article was originally written for the Quarterly Mixed Migration Update: Europe, Quarter 2, 2023 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The recent shipwreck in Greece, where a fishing vessel transporting up to 750 people sank off the Greek coast, highlighted the continued risks associated with migration and reignited conversation around who is to blame: the human smugglers who organize these crossings, often with a clear disregard for the lives of those on board, or the EU and the various member states whose failures and inaction are falling short of their legal and moral responsibilities to protect the vulnerable people travelling through their waters. However, with around half of those on board being Pakistani nationals, hundreds of them presumed dead, the tragedy also drew attention to another phenomenon that is generally overlooked in Western policy discussions around migration – the scale and dynamics of mixed migration to Europe from Pakistan.

Are more people leaving Pakistan for Europe?

While it is not possible to extrapolate numbers from a single incident, even one of the most deadly disasters in the Mediterranean for many years, the broader data available on mixed migration to Europe confirms that movement from Pakistan has significantly increased in 2023. While Pakistan did not even feature in IOM’s ranking of the top ten countries of origin among arrivals in Europe in 2022, Pakistan was the fifth most represented country in the first half of 2023, with 5,342 arrivals. However, in Greece, there has been no significant recorded increase of Pakistani nationals between 2022 and 2023. Instead, there has been a sharp uptick in the number of Pakistani arrivals registered in Italy: while in 2022 Pakistani nationals comprised just 3 per cent of the total number of arrivals in Italy, according to UNHCR, so far in 2023 this proportion has risen to around 10 per cent.

Why are they choosing to leave?

Though the absolute numbers of Pakistani refugees, migrants and asylum seekers entering Europe are still relatively modest, if looked at long-term, it is important to understand what may have caused this recent spike. Previous research by MMC, drawing on interviews with Pakistani arrivals in Italy between November 2019 and September 2021, identified a variety of intersecting factors that drove the need to migrate, with many (48%) citing multiple reasons for doing so, the most common being violence, insecurity and conflict (54%), lack of rights and freedom (36%) and economic reasons (33%). Given the deteriorating economic situation, high unemployment and runaway inflation, these factors are likely to have evolved, with desperation and lack of opportunity driving more to migrate. The devastation and displacement brought on by last year’s catastrophic flooding have only made matters worse.

Which routes are they taking?

Until recently, according to MMC’s research, the majority of Pakistani refugees, migrants and asylum seekers were travelling through Iran and Turkey before entering  Europe through the Eastern Mediterranean route and the Western Balkans before moving on to Italy. Others travelled the less common sea route from Turkey to Italy. For most of those interviewed the journey was arduous and protracted, usually involving more than one means of transportation (89%) and in almost three-quarters of cases (72%) taking more than a year to reach Italy.

Over the last year, however, there has been a decided shift towards the Central Mediterranean route, prompted by a number of developments elsewhere. Crossings from Türkiye into Europe have fallen sharply as Greece has stepped up sea patrols and built a border fence along the Evros. These developments have been accompanied by violent pushbacks and systematic human rights abuses against refugees and migrants, including illegal detention, physical assault, theft and humiliation. On multiple occasions, this brutal treatment has proven fatal: in February 2022, for instance, the bodies of 12 people who had been pushed back from Greece were found on the Turkish border, frozen to death after being stripped of their clothes and shoes.

This strategy of deterrence, aiming at discouraging people by all possible means from entering the EU, is now being replicated in the Western Balkans. 2022 saw the highest number of arrivals in the Western Balkans since the so-called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015/16, with 144,118 attempts to cross borders between the EU and Western Balkans recorded during the year. However, at the same time countries in the region (frequently in response to pressure from the EU) began to put in place more restrictive migration policies to curb transit. This included, in 2022, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first forcible returns of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Moroccan nationals. This may be a factor in the apparent reduction, from the summer of 2022 onwards, in the number of Pakistanis transiting Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, there has been an increase in those choosing to make the dangerous Mediterranean crossing to Italy, either directly from Turkey or along the Central Mediterranean route from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Understanding the risks

Though refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are frequently stigmatized in policy discussions for the “illegality” of their entry to Europe, in the wake of the recent tragedy the attention has focused instead on the smugglers and their criminal actions. In this instance, the vilification of the smugglers is more than warranted: the trawler was dangerously overloaded, with food and water supplies reportedly running out before the sinking. Perhaps most disturbingly, Pakistani nationals were apparently singled out (along with women and children) to be confined in the lower hold, the most hazardous part of the vessel, and subjected to mistreatment by the crew when they attempted to come on deck.

Yet the use of human smugglers to reach Europe remains widespread, with 88% of Pakistani respondents interviewed in the MMC study engaging them at some point during the journey. The level of service provided appears to vary considerably, with 66% of respondents believing that the smugglers had helped them reach their destination, while 44% thought they had been intentionally misled. These figures point to the complexity of human smuggling as a phenomenon and its almost commonplace role for most Pakistani nationals seeking to reach Europe. Though it may seem glib to characterize human smugglers as de facto “travel agents”, given the death or disappearance of so many people en route, they are able – in a context where no regular or legal pathways to migration exist – to achieve a degree of legitimacy for the thousands of Pakistani nationals seeking to leave their country every year.

In Pakistan, in the days following the tragedy, the Prime Minister declared Monday, 19 June, a day of national mourning and ordered an “immediate crackdown” on individuals involved in people smuggling. The Pakistani authorities confirmed the arrest of 14 individuals allegedly connected to people smuggling from Pakistan to Libya and Europe. Meanwhile, in Greece, nine Egyptian men who survived the shipwreck were also accused of people smuggling. The momentum to hold the criminals who orchestrated the crossing to account is understandable and necessary, given the direct responsibility they bear for the deaths of those on board, but to focus only on smuggling without understanding the broader motivation of those desperate to migrate, not to mention the role that European policies have played in exacerbating the dangers, will not deliver a lasting solution.

The reality is that the current EU approach to human mobility, with almost no resettlement for asylum seekers and very few accessible working visas for migrant labourers, smuggling (dangerous though it is) remains the only available option. Until this is recognized, more tragedies will occur. Indeed, on 26 February, less than four months before the tragedy at Messenia, a boat carrying around 200 passengers sank off the coast of the southern region of Calabria, Italy, claiming the lives of at least 94 people (including Pakistani nationals) on board. In the wake of these deaths, a number of suspected smugglers were arrested, and new legislation announced – though crucially, the latter has focused on increasing restrictions rather than strengthening protections for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, despite suggestions that the slow response of Italian authorities and Frontex may have contributed to the disaster. Without a more comprehensive solution that recognizes smuggling as a symptom of a dysfunctional migration landscape, this latest tragedy will likely not be the last.